Gilbey on Film: Grace Jones at the cinema

The singer has never had the film roles she deserves.

So Grace Jones stole the show at the Queen’s Jubilee concert, all hoops and hoopla. That news has got to be up there with “Sun rises”, “Grass still green” and “Ocean wet today.” What did you expect? Tuning in to Jones’s blissful extra-terrestrial frequency just for those four minutes of “Slave to the Rhythm” reminds me that, as far as the movies are concerned, Grace Jones is the one that got away. Cinema held on to a piece of Bowie and Jagger, Madonna and Prince, even Dylan, but no Grace Jones. Not yet.

Oh, she has appeared in films, and even, in some cases (such as the raunchy vampire movie Vamp), she has given off low-voltage jolts of that electricity which makes her such a compelling stage performer. But Bowie at least has The Man Who Fell to Earth; Jagger has Performance; Madonna has Desperately Seeking Susan (an inconsequential film but a part that decisively crystallised and fed her emerging persona); Prince has Purple Rain and Dylan has Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. Keynote films, testaments to charisma, proof enough that these performers possessed a personality and a visual sense of themselves which could not be contained on vinyl alone.

Despite the tacky pleasures of Vamp, Grace Jones doesn’t have one of those movies to her name. She was used as a novelty act in Roger Moore’s final Bond film, A View to a Kill, like an exotic animal hired for display purposes only at a freemasons’ ball. (What a shame that Duran Duran were guilty of - I mean, responsible for - that film’s theme song even though Jones was in the building, so to speak.) She popped up in other, even more rickety projects unworthy of her jungle-cat elegance and Frankenstein’s-monster menace: Conan the Destroyer, a sequel which no one wanted, in which she had to suffer the indignity of competing with Arnold Schwarzenegger for the camera’s attention; the Eddie Murphy rom-com Boomerang. I have fond memories of seeing the oddball thriller Siesta and Alex Cox’s western Straight to Hell, both in the late 1980s, but in both instances Jones was lost in the celebrity smorgasbord, one special guest star among many. And if there’s one thing you should never do with Jones, it’s overlook her.

Mostly she has chosen wayward or unpromising projects that gave her no chance to dazzle as she does on stage. I’d love to know why. Were better offers not extended to her? Her background is in theatre; she also starred in the 1973 Blaxploitation film Gordon’s War (which I haven’t seen). But that’s slim pickings for an artist so steeped in the visual. The fact that her music gives such good cinema only makes me ache even more to see her in a juicy role on screen. Our lists of favourite movies are restricted to celluloid, but it must be acknowledged that Jones’s Nightclubbing album (like Lou Reed’s Berlin or Ariel Pink’s Worn Copy) is one of the most stubbornly haunting films never made. David Lynch or Paul Schrader or the Jane Campion of In the Cut could have cooked up a role worthy of her - they could have made a whole movie based on the Nightclubbing album cover of her square, sculpted, metallic face - but would they have been ready for the creative battles that might have ensued on set? Our one hope could be that Matthew Barney is preparing a Grace Jones vehicle, but before I get too excited I have to keep reminding myself that wanting it doesn’t make it so.

Grace Jones performs at the Queen's Jubilee Concert on 4 June (Photo: Getty Images)

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

Picture: IWM Art
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The art of Wyndham Lewis is hard to love but impossible to ignore

Spiky and unlikeable, the painter was blighted for years by his flirtations with fascism.

In the early years of the 1930s the painter, novelist and social theorist Percy Wyndham Lewis (1882-1957) passed beyond the pale and has remained on the wrong side ever since. His crime was to write a series of books sympathetic to totalitarianism – as he saw it, man’s last, best hope against both the mass killings of communism and another world war. In 1931 he described Hitler as “a man of peace” but when he went to Germany in 1937 and witnessed Nazism at first hand he realised just how wrong he had been. His recantations came too late, however, and he has subsequently always been tagged as an apologist for fascism.

It did not help that Lewis had a spiky personality and an iron-clad amour ­propre that led to fallings-out with numerous friends; he also liked to goad the liberal elite and in particular the Bloomsberries. If you can judge a man by his enemies then Lewis ranks highly: Sacheverell Sitwell called him “a malicious, thwarted and dangerous man” and Ernest Hemingway described him in A Moveable Feast as having “the eyes of an unsuccessful rapist”. E M Forster, though, was more nuanced, discerning in him “a curious mixture of insolence and nervousness”.

If it was hard to like Lewis, so, too, with his pictures. There is almost nothing in his entire output that is conventionally beautiful but there is, on the other hand, much that is questing, innovative, unsettling and rebarbative. This was intentional: Lewis wanted his art to be “metaphysical” but not to offer the comfort of “sensuous impressions”. In short, he was a strange man who produced strange paintings.


TS Eliot (1938). Picture: Durban Art Gallery / Bridgeman Images

Lewis the artist is remembered largely as the prime founder of vorticism, Britain’s only true avant-garde movement. Born in 1914, vorticism sought to reflect the dynamism of the modern world through angular, fractured, urban and machine-based imagery. It proved to be a short-lived movement, becoming another victim of the First World War. Yet Lewis continued to paint and although in the 1920s he turned to writing (of his peers, only David Jones could match him in facility in both spheres) because he felt that modern art’s promise to transform society had failed, he returned to painting in the 1930s – partly out of financial necessity – and stayed with it until a pituitary tumour left him blind in 1951. Vorticism, he said, represented only “a little narrow segment of time, on the far side of the war”.

“Wyndham Lewis: Life, Art, War” is a standout exhibition of his work being held at Imperial War Museum North in Manchester – in Daniel Libeskind’s suitably striking vorticist building – because Lewis was an official war artist for both the British and the Canadians (he was born in Nova Scotia). The show, however, includes the full range of his art: apprentice work at the Slade – from which he was expelled – his experiments with a cubo-futurist style, the formation of vorticism, the war, his career as a portraitist and as an abstract artist, and the odd, historic-mythological paintings to which he turned in an attempt to re-establish his name. It is the biggest such survey of his work in over 60 years and shows a unique and uncategorisable artist.

Among the exhibits, which include a selection by fellow radical artists such as David Bomberg and Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, are three of Wyndham Lewis’s (he dropped the Percy) most notable works. The first is The Crowd (1914-15), the purest example of his vorticism, showing a schematic metropolis – part Fritz Lang and part Mondrian gone wrong – crawled over by tiny, rudimentary figures. A flag and men with banners suggest this might show an insurrection but it is nevertheless redolent of Lewis’s belief that modern man was at heart a dehumanised automaton driven by base passions.


The Crowd (1914-15). Picture: Tate, London 2017

His major war painting A Battery Shelled (1919) shows the descendants of those figures, now recast as insect-like gunners, scuttling to safety while under bombardment: Lewis served in the Royal Artillery at Passchendaele and had direct experience of such terror. He renders smoke, ground, explosions and men as a series of broken and reconstituted planes while three naturalistic Tommies passively witness the scene. When it was exhibited at the Royal Academy neither its enigmatic nature nor its avant-gardism appealed to audiences that wanted something more seemly and obviously commemorative, and the painting was embarrassedly offloaded by the war art committee to the Imperial War Museum.

Postwar it was as a portraitist that Lewis was most significant. Based on high-quality draughtsmanship, his portraits, often of members of his writers’ coterie, including Edith Sitwell and Ezra Pound, manage to combine a modernist style with intensity. The most perfect example is his 1938 portrait of his friend T S Eliot. For all the poet’s brooding presence this is less a psychological work than an icon. The painting caused a rumpus on exhibition because of a supposed phallus painted in the fanciful screens behind the sitter. Amid the furore, Walter Sickert, gallantly if erroneously, described Lewis as “the greatest portraitist of this, or any other time”.

At the end of this eye-opening show, though, it is Eliot’s judgement that still seems most accurate: “A man of undoubted genius, but genius for what precisely it would be remarkably difficult to say.” 

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 29 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit plague

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